WINNIPEG — The Ottawa REDBLACKS make their CFL regular season debut on Thursday night, as they visit Investors Group Field hoping to cool off the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and start a new era on the right foot.
After more than eight years and a total of 3,163 days since the Ottawa Renegades wrapped up their 2005 campaign, the Nation’s Capital is about to be represented by the likes of first-year head coach Rick Campbell and star quarterback Henry Burris.
With a brain-trust like Burris and Campbell among a number of other experienced CFL players the REDBLACKS aren’t your typical expansion team. Without even having played a game they sit atop the East Division standings, a spot for which they expect to compete for all season.
It starts with a pretty tough challenge against a Bomber team riding the momentum of an emotional 45-21 win over the Toronto Argonauts a week ago. If Burris and company weren’t already wary of the new-look Blue and Gold, they are now.
“It’s time to be prepared for a dog fight,” Burris told OttawaREDBLACKS.com. “We said we’re going into a hornet’s nest and everybody understands what we mean now.”
“That team is looking forward to getting over that hump and showing the fans that they’re the real deal.”
They certainly opened a lot of eyes with their Week 1 dominance over last year’s East Division Champion, leading the league in overall offensive output with 451 yards and leading by as many as 31 points in their largest season-opening win since 2001.
Young emerging pivot Drew Willy led the charge with 313 passing yards and four touchdowns, engineering five touchdown drives and 26 first downs. For many in the Manitoba capital the win and especially Willy’s performance was vindicating, following an off-season that raised some scrutiny over the team’s direction.
Many had pegged Burris as the Winnipeg’s next starting quarterback following his release from the Ticats, in a move that would have brought stability and leadership to the position following a seemingly endless carousel of pivots. The team wound up with a less proven Willy, who rookie head coach Mike O’Shea announced would be the starter right from the get-go.
Burris isn’t surprised it’s worked out so far, especially given the team’s leadership from the sidelines.
“I’ve told people that Winnipeg’s going to have a very good team this year,” Burris said. “You look at the coaching staff they’ve put together and of course it starts with O’Shea – just the type of attitude that he brings to the table.”
Of course, while the Bombers hope to continue proving their detractors wrong, Burris has plenty of his own to deal with. His former club fell 31-10 over the weekend in its first game without him, and now he has a chance to play an integral role in building a brand new franchise from the ground up.
“Not many guys get a chance to be a part of something so special,” Burris told the team’s official website. “Sometimes you have a chance to build up an organization that might have been in the dumps for a couple of years, but this is a totally different situation – this is bringing life back to a city that so much loves football, and we’re doing it from the ground up.”
“The people are relishing this moment and they’ve embraced this team,” he continued. “This team is embracing the city, and it’s going to breed a great relationship here and we’re just ready to get it going.”
Winnipeg’s situation isn’t dissimilar to Ottawa’s, given the team’s new identity as it enters its second season in brand new Investors Group Stadium. The Bombers are trying to make fans forget about 2013 and focus on what’s to come.
Those in attendance last weekend had lots to cheer about, as lengthy receiver Aaron Kelly dazzled with a pair of big touchdown grabs; Willy dissected the Argos’ defence; and rookie running back Nic Grigsby dominated to the tune of 122 yards on 21 carries.
Yet as much as it all meant for a team looking to prove it’s not the same one that took the field and struggled through 2013, it was even more important for the fans.
“As much as these players that have been here the last few years needed this win, so did the fans and our players appreciate that,” O’Shea told BlueBombers.com. “Our players that have been here recognized the fact that these fans needed this win.”
“I’m happy for them, I’m ecstatic for the fans that showed up and enjoyed this and the ones that watched on TV,” he continued. “They need it, this community needs this. The players need to understand it’s bigger than them.”
While the Bombers dominated the Argos in so many facets of the game, the biggest point of emphasis should go back to Willy. Bombers fans can take plenty of pride leading up to this weekend’s game, knowing, so far, they’ve got one of the league’s top performers under centre.
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It’s only one game, but Willy is giving reason to believe the Bombers may have solved a long-standing issue at the position.
“He ran the offence extremely well, obviously he made good decisions, got rid of the ball on time,” O’Shea said of Willy. “He is a professional football quarterback – he just ran a good game.”
“The number one thing quarterbacks are in charge of is winning, and he went out there and helped win the game for us.”
Willy, meanwhile was quick to credit the other 11 guys in the huddle.
“It’s 12 guys that have to be doing the right thing out there,” he said. “The offensive line did a great job, the receivers were at the right depths of their routes, and it’s my job to get the ball out on time.”
“They did a nice job and I’m happy with the protection.”
Most importantly, O’Shea, Offensive Coordinator Marcel Bellefeuille, and Defensive Coordinator Gary Etcheverry seemingly have the team buying into a redefined brand of Bombers football.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge, but we’ve really built something in training camp that we’re starting to believe in,” Willy said. “Coach O’Shea’s done a great job of hammering his message in and it’s definitely starting to sink in, and it’s our job as leaders to make sure that whatever he says gets down to the rest of the guys.”
All of that continues on Thursday night, as Willy and the Bombers hope to prove their triumph over the Argos was no fluke.
Thursday’s game marks number 1,034 for the Ottawa franchise, but the first for the Ottawa REDBLACKS – numbers that will be tracked separately.
Despite being an expansion team, Ottawa features 30 players who played in 2013 with only 16 first-year CFL players.
19 of 24 players taken in the Expansion Draft remain on the Active Roster or Injured List for Week 1.
Henry Burris is set to make his 187th start for a fourth different club. He is 100-83-3 in his career and ranks fourth all-time with 51,529 passing yards.
The Bombers’ 24-point win over Toronto was their second-largest opening win in club history, topped only by a 48-20 win over Calgary to kick off 2001.
Last week the Bombers controlled the ball for 36:03, the highest time of possession they’ve ever had since the statistic has been kept. Their previous high was in 1995 at 34:45, also against Toronto.
Drew Willy earned CFL Offensive Player of the Week honours for his performance last weekend.
Winnipeg went two-and-out only five times on 14 possessions against the Argos. Last season the Bombers averaged eight per game.
Kickoff is at 8:30 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.
– With files from BlueBombers.com/OttawaREDBLACKS.com